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Oh no. We’re talking about 6G again.
The most recent round of 6G speculation was kicked off by China launching what it billed as “the first 6G satellite” in early November. That billing is wrong. The satellite is not 6G. The 6G standard doesn’t even exist yet, and it’s still years away from being set. The “6G satellite” label is a marketing blurb connected to the increasingly tense geopolitical battle between the US and China over setting wireless standards. The tiny grain of truth in this soufflé of silliness is that the satellite’s purpose is to test terahertz-frequency radio technology, which in theory will be some part of the 6G standard.
This is just one example of the many confusing and contradictory things being said about 6G networks and technology by telecom companies, phone manufacturers, and governments. Here’s what we actually know about what 6G is, what it isn’t, and what it might be in the future.
What Does 6G Mean?
6G will be the sixth generation of wide-area wireless technology. Wireless generations are standardized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and occur every 10 years or so. They’re generally marked by a break in the “air interface,” meaning a change in transmission or encoding. This is done so previous-generation devices can’t be upgraded to the new generation.
Typically, new generations use more advanced digital encoding that older computers aren’t powerful enough to do, wider bands of airwaves that governments didn’t make previously available, and increasingly complex antenna systems that couldn’t previously be engineered.
We’re currently in the fifth generation. The first spec for 5G NR, the fifth-generation air interface, was crafted in 2017. 5G continues to evolve, but anything that isn’t compatible with the current 5G spec—any radical new development—will have to be 6G.
What Isn’t 6G?
Since there’s lots of hype around 6G even though it doesn’t exist yet, you can expect many things to be marketed as “6G” despite not being related in any way to 6G wireless technology. That Chinese satellite is just the tip of the iceberg of confusion.
I can already foresee a major problem involving Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and the 6GHz frequency band. Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is a current home networking standard. Wi-Fi 6E extends the existing Wi-Fi 6 onto a new band at the 6GHz frequency. You should absolutely expect that Wi-Fi 6E routers will have confusing “6G” stickers on them. They are not 6G.
Some chucklehead ISP is probably going to offer a 6-gigabit home service sometime in the next five years and bill it as “6G.” That is not 6G.
The city of Toronto, known as “The Six,” is in part famous for its resident Drake, who considers himself a gangster (of love). He could therefore refer to himself as “the 6G,” but he, too, is not a wireless networking standard.
When Will 6G Happen?
According to a Samsung white paper, the ITU will begin work to “define a 6G vision” in 2021. The standard will likely be completed around 2028, and we will see the first 6G products around then. Widespread deployment will happen around 2030, Samsung says.
In other words, don’t believe anyone saying that anything is really 6G for several years.
Why Are We Talking About This Now?
Now that 5G has been locked down, academics and tech firms alike are starting to build wishlists of the wild, science-fictiony stuff that we can’t do now but want to be able to do in 2030. They’re helping to shape the “6G vision” Samsung referred to. So are advances in technology that could make some of those far-out ideas into reality. All of this is really exciting if you’re the sort of person who gets excited about telecommunications—and you should be, because some of those innovations could shape social media, telecommuting, and apps you use every day.
Also, marketing people like having a label they can slap on something that makes it sound cool and high-tech.
How Does 6G Work?
We don’t know, because it doesn’t exist. However, there are some ideas starting to swirl around that suggest how it might eventually work.
A lot of the research around 6G is about transmitting data at ultra-high frequencies. 5G, in theory, goes up to about 100GHz, although no frequency above 39GHz is currently being used by 5G. For 6G, scientists are trying to figure out how to transmit data on waves in the hundreds-of-GHz or terahertz (THz) range. These waves are extremely tiny and fragile, but there’s a huge amount of free spectrum up there that would allow for spectacular data rates.
There are massive unsolved challenges here. We don’t have semiconductor materials that can use multi-THz frequencies. Getting any kind of range out of those frequencies may require enormous arrays of extremely tiny antennas. Water vapor in the atmosphere blocks and reflects THz waves, so mathematicians will have to design models that allow data to take very complex routes to its destination.
Current wireless systems only let you transmit or receive on any given frequency at once. To get two-way communication, you can split your channels by frequency (FDD) or by creating time-slots (TDD). Finding a way to use extremely complex math to send and receive in the same frequency, at the same time, could double the efficiency of existing spectrum (and be totally incompatible with existing networks). Nobody knows how to do this yet, but a lot of smart people are trying hard to figure it out.
Mesh networking has been a hot topic in many networking circles for years, but 5G is still predominantly a hub-and-spoke system in which end-user devices (phones) connect to base stations (cell towers) that connect to a backbone. Maybe 6G could use devices as boosters for one another’s data so that every device would extend coverage as well as using it.
Split computing is a 5G concept, but it could be much more powerful with 6G. Latency refers to how quickly data can be transferred between devices. The lower the latency, the more your phone can rely on split computing, in which some data is processed locally and some is processed elsewhere and transmitted. Since a device you hold in your hand will never be as powerful as the supercomputers in the cloud, this is vital for applications that send your device a constant stream of complex information.
6G is aiming for latency below 1ms, which is going to require a whole bunch of other technological innovations but could make some really nifty split computing things happen. For example, you could have augmented-reality glasses that transmit what you’re seeing (such as a cool piece of street art) to the cloud and get back information (such as the artist’s name or even a video of the mural being painted) to display to you in real time, doing no local processing at all.
There may also need to be a new form of the Internet Protocol (IP), according to a University of Oulu white paper. This would change the whole structure of the Internet. The paper describes a current IP packet as being like a first-class letter, with an addressed envelope and some sheets of text; a “new IP” packet would be like a FedEx package that includes routing and priority information.
These things all go together. For example, mesh networking could help alleviate problems caused by the short range of terahertz transmissions. If your data can hop from your phone to someone’s coat, to a car on the street, to a lamppost, and then to a base station, that lets a short-distance technology work over a much longer range.
There are a lot of other ideas out there. For more, check out the white papers at the University of Oulu’s 6G Flagship center. They publish a periodic magazine of 6G ideas as they subtly argue for Europe to be the center of 6G innovation.
Is There a 6G Cold War?
Yeah, sort of. Since 3G, there’s been a sense that a country or region that gets an early jump on the next generation of wireless technology reaps economic benefits from developing products and applications for it. This idea was cemented when the US moved early on 4G and most of the key global applications of the 4G era—things like Android, Instagram, and Uber—were then developed in the US.
Each G nowadays aims to be a global standard, so everyone has to agree on what it is. But the 6G Flagship in Oulu, Finland, exists in a subtle tension with the United States’ Next G Alliance (“Building the foundation for North American leadership in 6G”), which in turn looks quite suspiciously at what China is doing with 6G. The lines here aren’t cleanly drawn. You’ll find Chinese scientists attending the 6G Flagship’s conferences, and Nokia, a Finnish company, is a member of the Next G Alliance. But there’s definitely a sense of each country trying to get as much of its intellectual property into the standard as it can. Hence China’s bogus “6G satellite.”
What Will 6G Do For Me?
Nobody knows. Nobody even knows what the killer application for 5G is going to be. Every time conventional wisdom has tried to predict what a new wireless generation’s killer app would be, the industry got it wrong. 2G was going to be all about clear voice calling and it turned out to be about SMS. 3G was supposed to be about video calling and turned out to be about mobile web. 4G was supposed to be mobile broadband and it turned into Instagram and YouTube. I’ve been following 5G application projects for three years now and nobody really knows which ones will take off.
But you have to have something to aim for, so there are visions. Princess Leia, for instance. Samsung suggests “3D hologram displays,” which will require 580Gbps data rates on handheld devices and “several Tbps” for a human-sized hologram. I saw versions of these theoretical holographic displays in action at SKT’s T.um “museum of the future” earlier this year.
The holograms are a variant on telepresence concepts that I’ve seen proposed for 5G, and that just become more realistic with 6G. Think about people inhabiting and manipulating robotic tools and vehicles—or humanoid robots—remotely, with near-instantaneous response.
One other vision I’ve seen frequently is the idea of displays on everything, and everything being connected. Furniture, clothing, consumer products…everything would have some sort of flexible display interface on it that would gain function from a global connected hive mind. Remember, these are just ideas; nobody actually knows how to make any of it happen yet, nor whether it would actually be a good idea.
The above video from the 6G Flagship in Oulu is a few years old, but it gives you an idea of some of the 6G concepts kicking around. “Physical to cyber fusion” for “health analytics.” Smart clothing that detects and monitors potential health issues. Displays printed on anything, always connected to the cloud. Entirely autonomous industrial areas such as factories and ports, operated by low-latency artificial intelligence.
Many of these ideas have absolutely terrifying implications for privacy, social dynamics, and human labor. But that’s part of why we need to talk about 6G for another several years before designing and implementing it.
Is 6G Safe?
We have no idea. There is no 6G yet, just a vague set of conversation topics around technologies that may or may not happen. Figuring out which of those technologies are safe, profitable, useful, or even possible to build will occupy hundreds of academics and scientists for the next five years or so. However, safety will be part of any serious engineering conversation.
6G is guaranteed to generate as many conspiracy theories as scientific theories. Eventually, it will settle down into a list of possible technologies that tech firms will work to implement around ten years from now. For now, I want to leave you with a completely bonkers infographic I found in Oulu’s “6G Waves” magazine, which in some way has something to do with the business of 6G. Good luck understanding it.
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